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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Concert Review: Everest, Part One

Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Photo by Felix Broede for Deutsche Grammophon/UMG.
If the modern piano recital can be equated to the climbing of mountains, then Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (Clavier simply means "keyboard") represents one of the steepest, highest and most dangerous slopes of all. For Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the iconoclastic French pianist whose mentors included Pierre Boulez, Thursday night's performance of Book I of this massive keyboard work at Carnegie Hall was the equivalent of a climb up Everest--without oxygen or Sherpa guides.

Bach probably didn't plan for The Well-Tempered Clavier to be concert-hall entertainment. The piano and the piano recital was essentially a 19th century creation, and the "48" (as they are known to pianists) weren't even available as a published score until 1801. These sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys were meant as exercises for Bach's most promising pupils, with the two volumes of the work (which were written twenty years apart.)

When Bach assembled this cycle in 1722, the steel-framed Steinway used in Mr. Aimard's performance was an instrument of the future. He might be astonished to hear his works played with loud-soft dynamics, damping and sustain pedals, and other tools that were unavailable on the soft-spoken clavichord and the even-voiced harpsichord. Using a piano creates problems to be solved for the soloist: dynamics of volume must be determined and the pedals allow for shadings and voices that were far beyond the capabilities of Bach's 18th century instruments.

The concert opened with the Prelude in C Major, an ever-ascending figure that climaxes in a gorgeous cadence before it yields to a capering fugue. Here, this movement of the work was played slowly and almost solemnly, the rising arpeggios sounding a fanfare announcing the pianist's arrival. The fugue was the first of many pieces that night to dance across the keyboard, underlining this crucial aspect of Bach's keyboard writing in a unique and appropriate way.

As Mr. Aimard continued his ascent through the cycle, the true nature of The Well-Tempered Clavier became clear. Bach did not plan to write this massive work in one go, but rather collected keyboard pieces he found appropriate to his purpose, assembing the work as a big jigsaw puzzle. Mr. Aimard seemed cognizent of this, as he played each Prelude in a manner keeping with its distinct style. Mr. Aimard led the listener through a spinning kaleidoscope of tonal color, a journey of infinite variety and delight.

There were many highlights in this performance: the sly humor of Bach's contrapuntal writing in the Prelude in E flat major (itself containing its own double fugue!) tragic portent of the F minor Fugue (almost destroyed at its climax by a wayward cell phone) the G sharp minor with its angular intervals like the stabbing claws of some strange predator, the bleak heartbreak of the A minor that left the listener utterly drained and bereft.

What made this performance special was a sense of the whole cycle being a sum of its very different parts. The monumental nature of Bach's achievement became apparent in the final B Minor Prelude and Fugue, one of the composer's most compelling creations in counterpoint. As for the second Book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, that would be another mountain to be climbed another day.

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